By J. Conrad Williams
Photojournalism is misunderstood by many people who have their own notions of what a photojournalist does.
To them, a photojournalist is someone who writes stories and takes pictures for print publications, and there lies the misunderstanding. A photojournalist is one who tells stories – news, features or sports – with a camera. Their specialty is images.
A photojournalist’s work is not considered art, but rather a means of bringing to the viewer an accurate report of an event or story. This does not happen accidentally. Photographers know the ways to get across to the reader what they are trying to say.
Like writers, photographers learn a language, but theirs is a visual language that is universal. You need no translator to understand and appreciate the point of a good photo taken by a photojournalist here or on the other side of the world.
To take good pictures, you need to learn some of this language, about how a camera works and how to visualize pictures.
A good picture has nothing to do with how much one spends on a camera. The most expensive camera will not necessarily render the best picture one can make. I could use an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera and get out the same message as someone using a costly Nikon F5. Of course, there are situations that call for a better camera. If you spend more, you will have more features and those features sometimes help make your job easier.
All cameras are basically alike. They are nothing more than a box with film in it. A hole in one side lets in light that strikes the film and records the picture. This hole is called the aperture. It must be adjusted – to widen or narrow – in order to let in more or less light. This is controlled by the diaphragm, which regulates the light flow.
You also need a viewing system, which is how you see your subject through the camera.
There must be a lens that collects the light and projects the image onto the film.
And there must be a way to shield the film from light until the moment of making the photo. This is done by the shutter, a screen that moves out of the way when the shutter button is pressed.
This is when a picture is taken. What a beautiful feeling.
How a Camera Works
The Shutter: The shutter controls how fast a picture is taken. If you were shooting a sporting event, where things are moving quickly, you would need to shoot your pictures at a fast shutter speed – 1/1,000th of a second, for example – to capture the moment without a lot of blurring. If your subject is still, you can use a slower shutter speed – 1/125th of a second, for example. And if you wanted to show movement – with a figure moving past a blurry background – you would shoot at a slower shutter speed and pan the camera along with the action.
The Aperture: This controls the amount of light coming into the camera by regulating the size of the opening. The aperture settings on most cameras range from f2.8 to f22. The higher the number, the smaller the opening. On a very bright day, for example, you would use the smaller opening to keep from letting in too much light and overexposing your picture. The aperture also has another interesting role in picture-taking. It allows you to control the depth of your focus, something known as Depth-of-Field. The higher the aperture setting, the more depth that will be in focus. This means that things will be in focus both in the foreground and in the background. On the other hand, if you wanted to blur the background, as in a portrait, set the aperture much lower, to f4 or f2.8.
The Lens: Use the lens to help you with your idea and the picture composition. There are wide-angle lens, telephoto lenses and zoom lenses. Each lens renders a different perspective on how you view an image. A wide-angle lens lets you shoot a wide scene. It is best used when shooting space is tight. The disadvantage is distortion caused by the outer curving of the lens. A 50-millimeter lens on a 35-millimeter camera is considered a normal lens because it sees an image about the same way your own eyes do. It is good when shooting someone in their environment. Telephoto lenses bring the action up close. These are good for sporting events and portraits, because they get you close to the subject and compress the scene.
Film Plane: The film plane is inside the camera and where the film rests while being exposed to light as you trigger the shutter. It should always be kept clean so you don’t scratch your film. Scratches show up as streaks in the finished photograph.
Film Speed: The film speed is very important when shooting pictures. How fast or how slow will depend on the situation. The speed is indicated by a numbering system, with a 100-speed film being slower than a 400-speed or a 1,600-speed. If you are shooting in a low-light situation, a faster film is needed. For example, when Newsday photographers go to Madison Square Garden to shoot the Knicks, we use 1,600-speed film. This lets you shoot in low light, but the downside is that higher-speed film produces larger grain in prints. When we have a fashion shoot, we take 100-speed film, which produces a smaller grain, thus giving a much sharper and refined image. Unless you want to do sophisticated, low-light or high-speed shooting, a good film speed is 400. In low light, use a higher speed. In bright light, use a lower speed.
Taking Good Pictures
Planning Your Picture: It always is good to generate a picture idea in your head, although many times the idea won’t work out when you get to the assignment, so you must rethink it. Working the creative side of you is the hard part of the job, but the more you shoot, the better at this you will become. Ideas must match the situation and the story being told. If you have to shoot an aging football player, think about what would best show an aging football player. I would look at his support system. What is keeping him going? Is he taking lots of medication? Is he taped because of injuries that won’t allow him to move the way he should? Think before you shoot.
Composition: How you arrange the elements in a photograph is important because it helps the viewer understand what you are trying to say visually. To photograph an artist, you would want to show his or her environment, perhaps including paintings and brushes and the like. You would want to position the artist and the other elements so that the resulting picture is easy on the eye and not confusing about the point. Try not to just shoot straight on and avoid putting the subject at dead center.
Zero In: Empty space kills a picture. Always try to eliminate it by choosing a point of interest that captures what the photo needs to say. A rally, for example, can often be captured better by shooting a single person or small group than by trying to include everyone.
Camera Angles: The camera angle plays a big role in how you express your idea. In photographing a homeless person living on the street, for example, it can be expressive to shoot down, an angle that helps convey the feeling of someone who is down. In shooting Donald Trump, who is very rich, it would be effective to shoot up at him from a lower angle, making him look bigger than life or king of the hill. Use the camera angle to cut out empty space and crop out unnecessary and distracting elements in a scene. Conversely, use angles to help you include the elements that help tell the story.
Shooting Action: Photographing action is not an easy task. However, today’s cameras have auto-focus, which makes the job a bit easier. To shoot fast-moving action, you must learn a skill known as “follow focus,” a skill Some people are blessed with and others have to work at. Thinking fast is an asset because everything is moving quickly. Predicting where action is headed is important as well. This way you can be there first in order to prepare.
Lighting: Light is the most important part of photography because light is what film captures. Begin looking at the ever-changing lighting of your surroundings and you will begin to develop your eye. Lighting influences the mood of the picture. You can use natural light, use flash as the main light source or try a technique known as flash fill. Flash fill is used to augment natural lighting by, for example, eliminating shadows cast on a face on a bright day.
The Best Way
The best way to learn is by doing, over and over again. Analyze your pictures and consider how to make them better. Look at the work of other photographers and try to break down their techniques.
Good pictures don’t just happen. When you take time to understand the basic skills, you’ll be on your way to making a great picture.
J. Conrad Williams has been a staff photographer at Newsday since 1986. Before that, he freelanced in New York City. His trip to professional journalism was indirect, taking him through industrial design and counseling adolescents. He had intended to become a lawyer.